Cross Of Iron

1977, Movie, R, 133 mins


Bleak, unpleasant, and ugly look at men in combat that was almost universally panned by the mainstream press upon its initial release. Its complex and vivid portrayal of the absurdity of war, however, prompted none other than Orson Welles to write Peckinpah and proclaim it the finest antiwar film he had ever seen. Based on a celebrated novel by German author Willi Heinrich, the film is set at the Russian front circa 1943, as the Germans are retreating before the Soviet army. We follow corporal Coburn (in what may be his best performance), a German soldier--not a Nazi--who "hates this uniform and everything it stands for." Loyal only to his men, a tight-knit group of soldiers fighting for their survival, Coburn finds his nemesis in his new commander, captain Schell--an arrogant, narcissistic Prussian aristocrat who desperately wants to come home with an Iron Cross, Germany's highest honor for bravery, but who is terrified of battle. Since Coburn comes highly recommended by other commanders and has already been awarded the Iron Cross himself, Schell promotes him to sergeant in the hope of winning an ally. After a siege on their compound in which many brave men die while Schell cowers in his bunker, Coburn learns that the captain has filed a false report claiming that he led the counterattack--a deed certain to earn an Iron Cross. When Coburn refuses to confirm Schell's claims (he also resists calling him a liar, which would indicate reverence for a medal he considers worthless), Schell plots to dispose of the troublesome sergeant and his men.

CROSS OF IRON, which was plagued with production problems (producer Hartwig ran out of money before the final sequence was filmed) and was cut extensively by its American distributor before its US release, is yet another mutilated Peckinpah film but one that holds up exceedingly well nonetheless (the uncut version was restored for home video). From its opening--a brilliant montage of WWII stock footage intercutting Hitler and his armies with shots of Hitler Youth raising a flag on a mountain while a chorus of German children sing--to its bizarre, almost surreal climax, CROSS OF IRON is anything but a standard WWII movie, especially compared to its mythicizing contemporaries. Shot superbly by cinematographer Coquillon, the film shows war as hideously brutal, inglorious, and insane. With its focus on the corruption of moral values and the betrayal of the innocence of children, CROSS OF IRON is an angry film that ends with a bitter quote from Bertolt Brecht: "Do not rejoice in his defeat you men. For though the world has stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again." leave a comment

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